Tadpoles for dinner? Indigenous community in Mexico reveals a favorite recipe for a particular frog

Tadpoles of the Sierra Juarez brook frog Duellmanohyla ignicolor are consumed in caldo de piedra in the Chinantla region, in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Stone soup (caldo de piedra) is a traditional meal from the Indigenous Chinantla region in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Prepared by men, it is made by placing tomato, cilantro, chili peppers, onion, raw fish, salt, and water in a jicara (a bowl made from the fruit of the calabash tree) in a hole dug near a river. Then, the ingredients are cooked by adding red hot rocks to the “pot”.

In 2019, members of the CIIDIR-Oaxaca Amphibian Ecology Laboratory visited Santa Cruz Tepetotutla in the Chinantla region as part of their continued research work in the community’s forests and streams. 

“As we observed and recorded the presence of tadpoles, our guide, Mr. Pedro Osorio-Hernández, remarked that one such tadpole was eaten in stone soup”, says Dr Edna González Bernal, one of the researchers.

Local landscape. Photo by Carlos A. Flores

Although not much attention is paid to tadpoles, they are more important than you might think. They are perfect indicators of the health of bodies of water, due to their sensitivity to changes in the aquatic environment where they develop. When tadpoles are present in a stream, river, or even a puddle, they indicate an acceptable concentration of oxygen, pH, conductivity, and temperature, or overall good dynamics of sediments and plant matter. And, above all, finding tadpoles is the easiest way to know about the presence of an amphibian species that reproduces in that site, regardless of whether or not an adult has been observed. Hence, the identification of the unique characteristics of the tadpoles of each species is an important task that is currently drawing more attention amongst scientists. 

Duellmanohyla ignicolor tadpoles. Photo by Edna González-Bernal

“For us, as Oaxacans, Don Pedro’s words were an eye-opener”, biologist Carlos A. Flores, also part of the study,  continues. “Although we knew about the tradition of stone soup, we would have never imagined that it could be prepared with tadpoles of the Sierra Juárez Brook frog (Duellmanohyla ignicolor)!”

Duellmanohyla ignicolor. Photo by Edna González-Bernal

“As scientists, we wondered: why this species and not another? Since when have these tadpoles been eaten? In what other places are tadpoles consumed and in what form? Does this consumption have a negative effect on amphibian populations?”

To answer these questions, the researchers monitored several streams in the community, collecting data on the structure of these sites, such as depth, water velocity, temperature, etc. They wanted to identify the characteristics of the habitat where the tadpoles of this little known species are found. Their research was recently published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

The team’s primary interest in the stone soup with tadpoles was to accurately document human interaction with this amphibian species. 

“It is common in anthropological literature to document the consumption of tadpoles in Mexico, but rarely does such documentation reach the species level. Even in some ethnoherpetological works, the consumption of tadpoles is mentioned only anecdotally”, Dr González Bernal explains.  

A boy collects tadpoles. Photo by Edna González-Bernal

“We learned that these larvae tend to form schools: aggregations of several tens to hundreds of individuals. They swim on the surface of the water and move their mouths to feed on suspended particles, which may be remains of plant matter, pollen or insect parts”, she continues. 

“This behavior, as has been documented in other species, biologically implies a strategy to feed more efficiently, control body temperature, protect themselves from predators and even to encourage social interaction. At the same time, it makes it easier for humans to capture several tadpoles using nets, hats, bags or even their own hands.”

This tadpole soup is consumed during the hottest months (April and May), when people go swimming in the river. The rest of the year, it is prepared with fish. Local people described the tadpoles as having a delicious fish-like flavor.

Why do people eat these particular tadpoles? Community members remarked that, because they are found at the surface of the water, they are considered cleaner than those found at the bottom, such as the tadpoles of the the coastal toad (Incilius valliceps) and the gloomy mountain frog (Ptychohyla zophodes). In addition, the tadpoles consumed in the stone broth reach sizes of up to 5 centimeters, which makes them a better choice for the dish.

Tadpoles caught using caps. Photo by Edna González-Bernal

Is stone soup a dish that only exists in the Chinantla region? “We found that while the dish has primarily been documented in this region, it is also consumed in some Indigenous Ayuk (Mixe) municipalities,” Dr González Bernal says. 

The cooking principle itself is a technique that has been used throughout history by different cultures around the world. The particularity of the caldo de piedra lies in its preparation with tomato, cilantro, and chili peppers, as well as prawns or particular species of fish such as the bobo (Joturus prichardi).

In the case of the Sierra Juarez Brook frog’s tadpoles, the researchers concluded that since they are consumed locally and for non-commercial purposes, the species is not at risk. However, the behavior of these tadpoles and their preference for deeper water bodies make them vulnerable to being caught in large quantities.

“In the context of the global amphibian crisis, it is of utmost importance to continue increasing our knowledge about the diversity of species and above all to delve deeper into their ecology, both at the adult and larval stages. Only in this way can we gain a greater understanding of each species’ needs and develop conservation strategies that take into account the biology of species with a complex life cycle, such as amphibians”, the research team says in conclusion. 

Research article:

Flores CA, Arreortúa M, González-Bernal E (2022) Tadpole soup: Chinantec caldo de piedra and behavior of Duellmanohyla ignicolor larvae (Amphibia, Anura, Hylidae). ZooKeys 1097: 117-132. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1097.76426

Taylor Swift, the millipede: Scientists name a new species after the singer

Scientists described a total of 17 new species from the Appalachian Mountains—now published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

Taylor Swift, U.S. singer-songwriter known for hits such as “Shake It Off” and “You Belong With Me”, has earned a new accolade—she now has a new species of millipede named in her honor.

Taylor Swift. Photo by Eva Rinaldi

The twisted-claw millipede Nannaria swiftae joins 16 other new species described from the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. These little-known invertebrates have a valuable role as decomposers: breaking down leaf litter, they release their nutrients into the ecosystem. They live on the forest floor, where they feed on decaying leaves and other plant matter, and in fact, they are somewhat tricky to catch, because they tend to remain buried in the soil, sometimes staying completely beneath the surface.

Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks.

Derek Hennen

Scientists Derek Hennen, Jackson Means, and Paul Marek, at Virginia Tech, U.S., describe the new species in a research paper published in the open access journal ZooKeys. The research was funded by a National Science Foundation Advancing Revisionary Taxonomy and Systematics grant (DEB# 1655635).

The newly described twisted-claw millipede, Nannaria swiftae. Photo by Dr Derek Hennen

Because of their presence in museum collections, scientists long suspected that the twisted-claw millipedes included many new species, but these specimens went undescribed for decades. To fix this, the researchers began a multi-year project to collect new specimens throughout the eastern U.S. They traveled to 17 US states, checking under leaf litter, rocks, and logs to find species so that they could sequence their DNA and scientifically describe them.

Example of typical habitat for twisted-claw millipedes. Photo by Dr Derek Hennen

Looking at over 1800 specimens collected on their field study or taken from university and museum collections, the authors described 17 new species, including Nannaria marianae, which was named after Hennen’s wife. They discovered that the millipedes prefer to live in forested habitats near streams and are often found buried under the soil, exhibiting more cryptic behaviors than relatives.

The newly-described millipedes range between 18 and 38 mm long, have shiny caramel-brown to black bodies with white, red, or orange spots, and have white legs. The males have small, twisted and flattened claws on their anterior legs, which is the basis for their common name.

The lead author of the study, Derek Hennen, is a fan of Taylor Swift. 

“Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks,” he says.

Research article:

Hennen DA, Means JC, Marek PE (2022) A revision of the wilsoni species group in the millipede genus Nannaria Chamberlin, 1918 (Diplopoda, Polydesmida, Xystodesmidae). ZooKeys 1096: 17-118. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1096.73485

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First-ever fish species described by a Maldivian scientist

Though there are hundreds of species of fish found off the coast of the Maldives, a mesmerizing new addition is the first-ever to be formally described by a Maldivian researcher.

Named after the country’s national flower, the species is added to the tree of life as part of the California Academy of Sciences’ global Hope for Reefs initiative

Originally published by the California Academy of Sciences

Though there are hundreds of species of fish found off the coast of the Maldives, a mesmerizing new addition is the first-ever to be formally described—the scientific process an organism goes through to be recognized as a new species—by a Maldivian researcher.

The new-to-science Rose-Veiled Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa), described in the journal ZooKeys, is also one of the first species to have its name derived from the local Dhivehi language, ‘finifenmaa’ meaning ‘rose’, a nod to both its pink hues and the island nation’s national flower.

Scientists from the California Academy of Sciences, the University of Sydney, the Maldives Marine Research Institute (MMRI), and the Field Museum collaborated on the discovery as part of the Academy’s Hope for Reefs initiative aimed at better understanding and protecting coral reefs around the world.

“It has always been foreign scientists who have described species found in the Maldives, even those that are endemic, without much involvement from local scientists. This time, it is different and getting to be part of something for the first time has been really exciting, especially having the opportunity to work alongside top ichthyologists on such an elegant and beautiful species,”

says study co-author and Maldives Marine Research Institute biologist Ahmed Najeeb.

First collected by researchers in the 1990s, C. finifenmaa was originally thought to be the adult version of a different species, Cirrhilabrus rubrisquamis, which had been described based on a single juvenile specimen from the Chagos Archipelago, an island chain 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) south of the Maldives. 

In this new study, however, the researchers took a more detailed look at both adults and juveniles of the multicolored marvel, measuring and counting various features, such as the color of adult males, the height of each spine supporting the fin on the fish’s back and the number of scales found on various body regions. These data, along with genetic analyses, were then compared to the C. rubrisquamis specimen to confirm that C. finifenmaa is indeed a unique species. 

Importantly, this revelation greatly reduces the known range of each wrasse, a crucial consideration when setting conservation priorities.  

“What we previously thought was one widespread species of fish, is actually two different species, each with a potentially much more restricted distribution. This exemplifies why describing new species, and taxonomy in general, is important for conservation and biodiversity management,”

says lead author and University of Sydney doctoral student Yi-Kai Tea. 

Despite only just being described, the researchers say that the Rose-Veiled Fairy Wrasse is already being exploited through the aquarium hobbyist trade. 

“Though the species is quite abundant and therefore not currently at a high risk of overexploitation, it’s still unsettling when a fish is already being commercialized before it even has a scientific name. It speaks to how much biodiversity there is still left to be described from coral reef ecosystems,”

says senior author and Academy Curator of Ichthyology Luiz Rocha, PhD, who co-directs the Hope for Reefs initiative.

Last month, Hope for Reefs researchers continued their collaboration with the MMRI by conducting the first surveys of the Maldives’ ‘twilight zone’ reefs—the virtually unexplored coral ecosystems found between 50- to 150-meters (160- to 500-feet) beneath the ocean’s surface—where they found new records of C. finifenmaa along with at least eight potentially new-to-science species yet to be described. 

This new-to-science Rose-Veiled Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa) became the first Maldivian fish to ever be described by a local researcher.
Photo by Yi-Kai Tea.

For the researchers, this kind of international partnership is pivotal to best understand and ensure a regenerative future for the Maldives’ coral reefs. 

“Nobody knows these waters better than the Maldivian people. Our research is stronger when it’s done in collaboration with local researchers and divers. I’m excited to continue our relationship with MMRI and the Ministry of Fisheries to learn about and protect the island nation’s reefs together,”

says Rocha says

“Collaborating with organizations such as the Academy helps us build our local capacity to expand knowledge in this field. This is just the start and we are already working together on future projects. Our partnership will help us better understand the unexplored depths of our marine ecosystems and their inhabitants. The more we understand and the more compelling scientific evidence we can gather, the better we can protect them,”

adds Najeeb.

***

Research article:

Tea Y-K, Najeeb A, Rowlett J, Rocha LA (2022) Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa (Teleostei, Labridae), a new species of fairy wrasse from the Maldives, with comments on the taxonomic identity of C. rubrisquamis and C. wakanda. ZooKeys 1088: 65-80. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1088.78139

***

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New rainfrog species named in honor of Greta Thunberg

The Rainforest Trust celebrated its 30th anniversary by hosting an auction offering naming rights for new-to-science species. The funds raised are to aid their conservation.

In 2018, Rainforest Trust celebrated its 30th anniversary by hosting an auction offering naming rights for some new-to-science species. The funds raised at the auction benefited the conservation of the newly recognized species. It is estimated that about 100 new species are discovered each year.

The scientific article officially describing and naming the new species, Pristimantis gretathunbergae, was published in Pensoft’s scientific journal ZooKeys.

Greta Thunberg, Sweden at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 25, 2019. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Manuel Lopez

The international team that discovered the new rainfrog was led by Abel Batista, Ph.D. (Panama) and Konrad Mebert, Ph.D. (Switzerland). The two have collaborated for 10 years in Panama and have published eight scientific articles together and described 12 new species.

The team found the frog on Mount Chucanti, a sky island surrounded by lowland tropical rainforest in eastern Panama. Reaching its habitat in the cloud forest required access via horseback through muddy trails, hiking up steep slopes, by-passing two helicopters that crashed decades ago, and camping above 1000 m elevation. The Chucanti reserve was established by the Panamanian conservation organization ADOPTA with support from Rainforest Trust.

The Greta Thunberg Rainfrog exhibits distinctive black eyes—unique for Central American rainfrogs. Its closest relatives inhabit northwestern Colombia. Unfortunately, the frog’s remaining habitat is severely fragmented and highly threatened by rapid deforestation for plantations and cattle pasture. The Chucanti Reserve where the frog was first found is part of a growing network of natural parks and preserves championed by the Panamanian Government.

Greta Thunberg’s rainfrog, Pristimantis gretathunbergae. Photo by Konrad Mebert

The Rainforest Trust auction winner wanted to name the frog in honor of Greta Thunberg and her work in highlighting the urgency in preventing climate change. Her “School Strike for Climate” outside the Swedish parliament has inspired students worldwide to carry out similar strikes called Fridays for Future. She has impressed global leaders and her work is drawing others to action for the climate.

The plight of the Greta Thunberg Rainfrog is closely linked to climate warming, as rising temperatures would destroy its small mountain habitat. The Mount Chucanti region already has lost more than 30% of its forest cover over the past 10 years. Deadly chytrid fungus pose additional threats for its amphibians. Conservation of the remaining habitat is critical to ensure the survival of the frog. The important work in Panama by ADOPTA and Rainforest Trust globally to protect rainforests is critical to the survival of this frog and many other endangered species.

Research article:

Mebert K, González-Pinzón M, Miranda M, Griffith E, Vesely M, Schmid PL, Batista A (2022) A new rainfrog of the genus Pristimantis (Anura, Brachycephaloidea) from central and eastern Panama. ZooKeys 1081: 1–34. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1081.63009

First tarantula to live in bamboo stalks found in Thailand

A new genus of tarantula was discovered inside a bamboo culm from Mae Tho, Tak province, in Thailand. This is the first genus of tarantula that shows the surprising specialization of living in bamboo stalks. The bamboo culm tarantula Taksinus bambus was found in Thailand by JoCho Sippawat, a wildlife YouTuber from Thailand, who collaborated with arachnologists Dr. Narin Chomphuphuang and Mr. Chaowalit Songsangchote. The new genus and species are described in the journal ZooKeys.

Guest blog post by Dr. Narin Chomphuphuang

Bamboo is important to some animals as it can serve as a source of nutrition, shelter, and habitat. Inside a bamboo culm, we discovered a new genus of tarantula, which was collected from Mae Tho, Mueang Tak district, Tak province, in Thailand.

Mae Tho, Mueang Tak district, Tak province, in Thailand, where the newly described tarantula was discovered. Photo by Narin Chomphuphuang

The discovered genus has not been previously studied by scientists; this is the first case of a genus of tarantula that shows the surprising specialization of living in bamboo stalks.

We named the new tarantula genus Taksinus in honor of the Thai king Taksin the Great. The name was chosen in recognition of Taksin the Great’s old name, Phraya Tak – governor of Tak province, which is where the new genus was discovered. After the Second Fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, Taksin the Great was the only king of the Thonburi Kingdom to become a key leader of Siam, prior to the establishment of Thailand.

The bamboo culm tarantula Taksinus bambus was found in Thailand by JoCho Sippawat, a nationally known wildlife YouTuber in Thailand with 2.45 million subscribers, who collaborated with Dr. Narin Chomphuphuang and Mr. Chaowalit Songsangchote, the arachnologists who studied and described the new genus. 

Zongtum Sippawat, or JoCho Sippawat (left), with Wuttikrai Khaikaew, Kaweesak Keeratikiat, Narin Chomphuphuang and Chaowalit Songsangchote. Photo by Narin Chomphuphuang

In general, tarantulas from Southeast Asia can be either terrestrial or arboreal. Arboreal tarantulas spend time on different types of trees, but until now, researchers had not previously identified a tarantula found only on a specific tree type.

“These animals are truly remarkable; they are the first known tarantulas ever with a bamboo-based ecology,” Narin said.

Finding the new tarantula. Video by JoCho Sippawat

The tarantulas were discovered inside mature culms of Asian bamboo stalks (Gigantochloa sp.), with nest entrances ranging in size from 2–3 cm to a large fissure, within a silk-lined tubular burrow, either in the branch stub or in the middle of the bamboo culms. All the tarantulas found living in the culms had built silken retreat tubes that covered the stem cavity.

The tarantulas cannot bore into bamboo stems; therefore, they depend on the assistance of other animals. Bamboo is preyed upon by a variety of animals, including the bamboo borer beetle, bamboo worm, bamboo-nesting carpenter bee, and small mammals such as rodents. Furthermore, bamboo cracking is primarily caused by rapid changes in moisture content induced by the atmosphere, uneven drying, or drenching followed by rapid drying or by human activities. 

Taksinus bambus tarantula in its habitat. Photo by JoCho Sippawat

Taksinus is classified as a new genus within the Ornithoctoninae subfamily of Southeast Asian tarantulas. The discovery comes 104 years after Chamberlin defined the previous genus in this subfamily, Melognathus, in 1917.

What makes Taksinus distinct from all other Asian arboreal genera is the relatively short embolus of the male pedipalps, which is used to transport sperm to the female seminal receptacles during mating. In addition to morphology, its habitat type and distribution are also different from those of related species. While Asian arboreal tarantulas have been reported in Indonesia (Sangihe Island and Sulawesi), Malaysia, Singapore, Sumatra, and Borneo, Taksinus was discovered in northern Thailand, which is a new geographical location for those spiders.

Looking at an entrance hole of a bamboo culm tarantula. Photo by Narin Chomphuphuang

“We examined all of the trees in the area where the species was discovered. This species is unique because it is associated with bamboo, and we have never observed this tarantula species in any other plant. Bamboo is important to this tarantula, not only in terms of lifestyle but also because it can only be found in high hill forests in the northern part of Thailand, at an elevation of about 1,000 m. It is not an exaggeration to say that they are now Thailand’s rarest tarantulas,” says Narin.

Few people realize how much of Thailand’s wildlife remains undocumented. Thai forests now cover only 31.64% of the country’s total land area. We are primarily on a mission to research and save the biodiversity and wildlife within these forests from extinction, especially species-specific microhabitats.

Research article:

Songsangchote C, Sippawat Z, Khaikaew W, Chomphuphuang N (2022) A new genus of bamboo culm tarantula from Thailand (Araneae, Mygalomorphae, Theraphosidae). ZooKeys 1080: 1-19. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1080.76876

A year of biodiversity: Top 10 new species of 2021 from Pensoft journals, Part 2

While 2021 may have been a stressful and, frankly, strange year, in the world of biodiversity there has been plenty to celebrate! Out of the many new species we published in our journals this year, we’ve curated a selection of the 10 most spectacular discoveries. The world hides amazing creatures just waiting to be found – and we’re making this happen, one new species at a time.

Read Part 1 of the Top 10 new species of 2021 here.

5. The Instagram model

Many students and young researchers are encouraged to explore biodiversity by starting from their own backyard. Yes, but how often do they find undescribed snake species in there?

This is exactly what happened to Virendar K. Bhardwaj, a master student in Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar. Confined to his home in Chamba, India because of the COVID-19 lockdown, he started photographing any wildlife he came across and uploading it on his Instagram account. One of his images showed a beautiful kukri snake.

The picture immediately caught the attention of Zeeshan A. Mirza (National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore) and Harshil Patel (Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Surat), who worked together with Virendar to describe it as a new species under the name Oligodon churahensis.

“It is quite interesting to see how an image on Instagram led to the discovery of such a pretty snake that, until very recently, remained hidden to the world,” Zeeshan A. Mirza told us earlier this month.

“What’s even more interesting is that the exploration of your own backyard may yield still undocumented species. Lately, people have been eager to travel to remote biodiversity hotspots to find new or rare species, but if one looks in their own backyard, they may end up finding a new species right there.”

Published in: Evolutionary Systematics

4. The tiny snail with an athletic name

Do freshwater snails make good tennis players? Well, one of them certainly has the name for it.

Enter Travunijana djokovici, a new species of aquatic snail named after famous Serbian ten­nis player Novak Djokovic.

Found in a karstic spring near Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, T. Djokovici is part of the family of mud snails, which inhabit fresh or brackish water, including caves and subterranean habitats.

The tiny snail was discovered by Slovak biospeleologist Jozef Grego and Montenegrin zoologist Vladimir Pešić of the University of Montenegro, who claim they named it after the renowned tennis player “to acknowledge his inspiring enthusiasm and energy.”.

To discover some of the world’s rarest animals that inhabit the unique underground habitats of the Dinaric karst, to reach inaccessible cave and spring habitats and for the restless work during processing of the collected material, you need Novak’s energy and enthusiasm,” they add.

Amazingly, Novak Djokovic found out that he’s now a namesake to a tiny snail, and he even had a comment.

“I am honoured that a new species of snail was named after me because I am a big fan of nature and ecosystems and I appreciate all kinds of animals and plants,” he says in an Eurosport article. “I don’t know how symbolic this is, because throughout my career I always tried to be fast and then a snail was named after me,” he joked. “Maybe it’s a message for me, telling me to slow down a bit!”

Published in: Subterranean Biology

3. The Coronavirus caddisfly

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly affected all of us, and the scientific world is no exception. Fieldwork got postponed, museums remained closed, arranging meet-ups and travel became almost impossible.

Scientists used this as a drive and inspiration as they continued their hard work on new discoveries. Only this year, we published the descriptions of the beetle Trigonopterus corona, the wasp Allorhogas quarentenus, and, yes, the caddisfly Potamophylax coronavirus.

P. coronavirus was collected near a stream in the Bjeshkët e Nemuna National Park in Kosovo by a team of scientists led by Professor Halil Ibrahimi of the University of Prishtina. After molecular and morphological analyses, it was described as a caddisfly species new to science. Its name will be an eternal memory of an extremely difficult period.

In a broader sense, the researchers also wish to bring attention to “another silent pandemic occurring on freshwater organisms in Kosovo’s rivers,” caused by the pollution and degradation of freshwater habitats, as well as the activity increasing in recent years of mismanaged hydropower plants. Particularly, the river basin of the Lumbardhi i Deçanit River, where the new species was discovered, has turned into a ‘battlefield’ for scientists and civil society on one side and the management of the hydropower plant operating on this river on the other.

P. coronavirus is part of the small insect order of Trichoptera, which is very sensitive to water pollution and habitat deterioration. The authors of the species argue that it is a small-scale endemic taxon, very sensitive to the ongoing activities in Lumbardhi i Deçanit river, and failure to understand this may drive it, along with many other species, towards extinction.

Published in: Biodiversity Data Journal

2. The cutest peacock spider ever

If you think spiders can’t be cute, you’ve probably never seen a peacock spider. They have big forward-facing eyes, and their males perform fun courtship dances.

Citizen scientist Sheryl Holliday was the first to spot this vibrant spider while walking in Mount Gambier, Australia, and she posted her find on Facebook. It was later described as a new species by arachnologist Joseph Schubert of Museums Victoria.

Coloured bright orange, it was called Maratus Nemo, after the popular Disney character.

‘It has a really vibrant orange face with white stripes on it, which kind of looks like a clown fish, so I thought Nemo would be a really suitable name for it,’ Joseph Schubert says.

Maratus Nemo is probably the first influencer arachnid – his curious story, bright colours and fun name practically made him an internet star overnight.

Published in: Evolutionary Systematics

1. The tiny ant that challenges gender stereotypes

Found in Ecuador’s evergreen tropical forests, this miniature trap jaw ant bears the curious Latin name Strumigenys ayersthey. Unlike most species named in honour of people, whose names end with -ae (after females) and –i (after males), S. ayersthey might be the only species in the world to have a scientific name with the suffix –they.

“In contrast to the traditional naming practices that identify individuals as one of two distinct genders, we have chosen a non-Latinized portmanteau honoring the artist Jeremy Ayers and representing people that do not identify with conventional binary gender assignments, Strumigenys ayersthey,” authors Philipp Hoenle of the Technical University of
Darmstadt
and Douglas Booher of Yale University state in their paper.

Strumigenys ayersthey sp. nov. is thus inclusively named in honor of Jeremy Ayers for the multitude of humans among the spectrum of gender who have been unrepresented under traditional naming practices.”

Curiously, it was no other than lead singer and lyricist of the American alternative rock band R.E.M. Michael Stipe that joined Booher in writing the etymology section for the research article, where they explain the origin of the species name and honor their mutual friend, activist and artist Jeremy Ayers.

This ant can be distinguished by its predominantly smooth and shining cuticle surface and long trap-jaw mandibles, which make it unique among nearly a thousand species of its genus.

“Such a beautiful and rare animal was just the species to celebrate both biological and human diversity,” Douglas Booher said.

Published in: ZooKeys

Scientists discover White-handed gibbons that have been evolving in the south of Malaysia

Genetic assessment of captive gibbons to identify their species and subspecies is an important step before any conservation actions. A group of wildlife researchers recently discovered a previously unknown population of white-handed gibbons (subspecies lar) from Peninsular Malaysia. Their findings are now published in the open-access journal ZooKeys. Betsy and Lola are among the captive white-handed gibbons undergoing a strict rehabilitation process before being released back to the wild.

Many captive gibbons kept in zoos and rescue centres have been seized from illegal pet trade, private collectors, and plantations where their natural habitats are getting destroyed. 

In 2013, the National Wildlife Rescue Centre (NWRC) of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN) was established in Peninsular Malaysia to help with the rehabilitation of wildlife species – including gibbons – before they are reintroduced or translocated back to the wild. Under the Primate Rehabilitation Programme initiated by PERHILITAN, captive gibbons have to go through a number of procedures and assessments, where their taxonomy and genetics might be examined, before they can go back to living in the wild.

Members of the research team at National Wildlife Forensic Laboratory of DWNP. Photo by PERHILITAN

Following the Guidelines for Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations provided by the IUCN Species Survival Commission, researchers Dr Jeffrine J. Rovie-Ryan from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak and Millawati Gani and colleagues from the National Wildlife Forensic Laboratory of PERHILITAN conducted a genetic assessment on 12 captive white-handed gibbons in NWRC. Determining the subspecies and origin of the animals is an important step that informs further decisions on their translocation and reintroduction.

In a research paper published in the open-access journal ZooKeys, the team describes a previously unknown southern population of the white-handed gibbon subspecies lar living in Peninsular Malaysia. In what started as a straightforward species and subspecies identification process using DNA technology, the researchers discovered unusual mutations in the DNA of the studied gibbons. This is how the researchers found themselves before a distinct population, which they concluded must have been evolving in isolation.

Lola (left) and Betsy (right), two of the White-handed gibbons of the Hylobates lar lar subspecies undergoing rehabilitation process at Pulau Ungka, NWRC. Photo by Hani Nabilia and PERHILITAN

“Given the prolonged isolation, it is likely that the southern population has undergone some local speciation, but this finding should be regarded as preliminary and requires further investigation,” explained Dr Jeffrine. Furthermore, the researchers suggest there might be a northern population inhabiting Southern Thailand.

Still going through rehabilitation, the gibbons from the study have been pre-released into a semi-wild enclosure known as Pulau Ungka (Gibbon Island), where their recovery is closely monitored by primate experts of PERHILITAN.

Research article:

Gani M, Rovie-Ryan JJ, Sitam FT, Mohd Kulaimi, NA, Zheng, CC, Atiqah AN, Abd Rahim, NM, Mohammed AA (2021) Taxonomic and genetic assessment of captive White-Handed Gibbons (Hylobates lar) in Peninsular Malaysia with implications towards conservation translocation and reintroduction programme. ZooKeys 1076: 25–41 (2021), doi: 10.3897/zookeys.1076.73262

A year of biodiversity: Top 10 new species of 2021 from Pensoft journals, Part 1

With 2022 round the corner, we thought we’d start off the celebrations by looking back to some the most memorable discoveries of 2021. And what a year it has been! Many new species made their debuts on the pages of Pensoft journals – here’s our selection of the most exciting animals, plants and fungi that we published in 2021.

With 2022 round the corner, we thought we’d start off the celebrations by looking back to some the most memorable discoveries of 2021. And what a year it has been! Many new species made their debuts on the pages of Pensoft journals – here’s our selection of the most exciting animals, plants and fungi that we published in 2021.

10. The delicious wild oak mushroom

It’s amazing that edible species, long known to local communities, can still present a novelty for science. This was the case with Cantharellus veraecrucis, a chanterelle from – that’s right, Veracruz, Mexico.

During the rainy season, locals harvest this mushroom from tropical oak forests to sell it or enjoy it as a delicacy; this is probably why they’ve dubbed it “Oak mushroom”.

Published in: MycoKeys

9. The master of disguise

If you ever see a leaf insect, there’s a good chance you won’t notice it – these little critters are masters of camouflaging.

This picture was taken in 2014, when Jérôme Constant and Joachim Bresseel from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences were enjoying a night walk in Vietnam’s Nui Chua National Park. It wasn’t until this year, though, that this beauty got its own scientific name: Cryptophyllium nuichuaense. Named after the park where it was found, it is one of 13 new species of leaf insects described in our journal ZooKeys this February.

This leaf insect, like many others, is endemic to Vietnam. This is why the researchers who found itcall for the creation of more protected areas in order to keep this precious biodiversity intact.

Published in: ZooKeys

8. The Neil Gaiman spider

Unlike most spiders, trapdoor spiders don’t use silk to make a web. Instead, they live in burrows lined with silk that they cover with a “trapdoor”. They are relatively widely spread, but you’d rarely encounter one out in the open, because they spend most of their lives underground.

This is probably why arachnologists and spider lovers the world over got so excited when Dr. Rebecca Godwin (Piedmont University, GA) and Dr. Jason Bond (University of California, Davis, CA) described 33 new species of trapdoor spiders from the genus Ummidia – in addition to the 27 already known.

Dr. Rebecca Godwin talks to L. Brian Patrick about her discovery of 33 new species of trapdoor spiders on his podcast New Species.

One of the 33 is Ummidia neilgaimani, named after fantasy and horror writer Neil Gaiman. A particular favorite of Dr. Godwin, Gaiman is the author of a number of books with spider-based characters. His novel American Gods features a character based on the West African spider god Anansi and a World Tree “one hour south of Blacksburg,” not far from the type locality of this species. He’s also part of the documentary Sixteen Legs, in his own words “An amazing film about Tasmanian cave spider sex.”

“I think anything we can do to increase people’s interest in the diversity around them is worthwhile and giving species names that people recognize but that still have relevant meaning is one way to do that,” says Dr. Godwin.

Published in: ZooKeys

7. The deadly Chinese-goddess snake

Bungarus suzhenae was only described as a new species this year, but its reputation preceded it – in a bad way. Researchers were already familiar with a notorious black-and-white banded krait that bit herpetologists on expeditions in Myanmar and China – in one infamous case, to death. After extensive morphological and phylogenetical analysis, the researchers were finally able to confirm it as new to science.

The story behind B. suzhenae’s name is interesting, too: it was named after a character from the traditional Chinese myth ‘Legend of White Snake’. The powerful snake goddess Bai Su Zhen is to this day regarded as a symbol of true love and good-heartedness in China. 

Snakebites from kraits – including this one – are known to have a high mortality. This is why the new knowledge on B. suzhenae and its description as a new species are essential to the research on its venom and an important step in the development of antivenom and improved snakebite treatment.

Published in: ZooKeys

6. The ephemeral fairy lanterns

Commonly known as “fairy lanterns”, plants of the genus Thismia are very rare and small in size. They are mycoheterotrophic, which means they live in close association with fungi from which they acquire most of their nutrition. They’re also very elusive, growing in dark, remote rainforests, and visible only when they emerge to flower and set seed after heavy rain.

In fact, researchers were only able to find one specimen of the new T. sitimeriamiae, which they discovered in the Terengganu State of Malaysia – the rest of the population had been destroyed by wild boars.

Just discovered, T. sitimeriamiae may already be threatened by extinction – which is why the research team that discovered it suggest that this exceptionally rare plant is classified as Critically Endangered.

Published in: PhytoKeys

Part 2 coming soon – stay tuned!

Trigonopterus corona, the new species of tiny beetle named after the coronavirus

… and 27 other new species of beetles discovered on Sulawesi Island

Many curious animals can be found on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi – such as the deer-hog and the midget buffalo. But the island’s tropical forests hide a diversity of tiny insects that still remains largely unexplored. Museum scientists from Indonesia and Germany have just discovered 28 new species of beetles, all belonging to the weevil genus Trigonopterus.

Twenty-four newly discovered species of the genus Trigonopterus from Sulawesi. Image by Alexander Riedel

Most of the new species were collected by Raden Pramesa Narakusumo, curator of beetles at the Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense, from two localities of Central Sulawesi Province: Mt. Dako and Mt. Pompangeo. In fact, the forests on their slopes had never been searched for small weevils before.

A view from a ridge over the cloudy slopes of Mt. Pompangeo. Photo by Raden Pramesa Narakusumo

His research partner, Alexander Riedel of the Natural History Museum Karlsruhe, had been studying this genus for the past 15 years and was planning for a research trip to Papua New Guinea, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Finding himself grounded, he decided to work on the specimens from Sulawesi together with Narakusumo instead.

After diagnosing the new species, it was a challenge to find suitable names for them. One obvious choice was Trigonopterus corona, which reflects the large impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this project. However, T. corona is by far not the first insect species with a pandemic-inspired name. In the last year, we’ve seen the species descriptions of the caddisfly Potamophylax coronavirus and the wasps Stethantyx covida and Allorhogas quarentenus.

Trigonopterus corona.
Trigonopterus ewok.

While some of the newly described species go by rather ‘standard’ names that derive from either the localities they have been collected from or their distinct characters, others were given a free pass to the Hall of Fame. Two of them were named after Indonesian movie characters (T. gundala and T. unyil), while T. ewok is another addition based on the Star Wars universe – perfectly in line with T. chewbacca, T. yoda and T.porg, all described between 2016 and 2019 by teams involving Riedel. The two-millimeter-long, rust-coloured Trigonopterus ewok was found at 1900–2000 m on Mt Pompangeo, hiding among the leaf litter in the forest.

But how come the critters have remained overlooked for so long? Almost all of these beetles measure only 2-3 millimeters, while most entomologists have a preference for the larger and strikingly looking stag beetles or jewel beetles. 

A second factor is the superficial resemblance of many species: they are most easily diagnosed by their DNA sequences. Besides the publication in the open-access journal ZooKeys, high-resolution photographs of each species were uploaded to the Species ID website, along with a short scientific description. This provides a face to the species name, an important prerequisite for future studies.

R.P. Narakusumo during fieldwork at the top of Mt. Dako. Photo by Raden Pramesa Narakusumo

This is the duo’s second published paper on Trigonopterus weevils from Sulawesi – the first one describing the whopping 103 new species from the area. Currently, the known Trigonopterus species on the island amount to 132, which is likely a mere fraction of the real diversity. The numerous mountains of Sulawesi have a distinct fauna of endemics that have evolved over the past millions of years, and these wingless, flightless weevils, highly isolated in their habitats, are a good example of this diversification. Their evolution is interwoven with the island´s geological history. Riedel wants to increase the number of sampled localities: 

“Once we have enough locality coverage and understand the weevils’ evolution, we can draw conclusions on the geological processes that formed the island of Sulawesi. This is a fascinating subject, because this island was formed by the fusion of different fragments millions of years ago.” The new species thus fill an important gap required for solving the island´s geological puzzle.

For the Indonesian side, it is equally important to obtain an inventory of species: “A large percentage of Indonesian biodiversity is yet unknown and we need names and diagnoses of species, so we can use these in further studies on conservation and bioprospecting,” says R. Pramesa Narakusumo. “Two of the newly described species came from our museum collection, and this underlines the importance of museums as a source for biological discoveries,” he added.

With many more new species of this genus to be expected, it is a lucky coincidence that the number of Star Wars characters is equally long. May the Force be with these researchers!

Research article:

Narakusumo RP, Riedel A (2021) Twenty-eight new species of Trigonopterus Fauvel (Coleoptera, Curculionidae) from Central Sulawesi. ZooKeys 1065: 29-79. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1065.71680

Pakistan’s amphibians need more research efforts and better protection

In Pakistan, amphibians have long been neglected in wildlife conservation, management decisions and research agendas. To counter this, scientists have now published the first comprehensive study on all known amphibian species in the country in the open-access scholarly journal ZooKeys. The little we currently know about the occurrence of the chytrid fungus, which has already eradicated many amphibian species globally, is a grim example of how urgent it is to acquire further information.

Amphibians are bioindicators of an ecosystem’s health and may also serve as biological control of crop and forest pests. The First Herpetological Congress, organized in 1989, presented alarming findings about the decline in amphibian populations. Currently, amphibians include the highest percentage of threatened species (>40%), as well as the highest number of data deficient species (>1500 species). The little we currently know about the occurrence of the chytrid fungus, which has already eradicated many amphibian species globally, is a grim example of how urgent it is to acquire further information.

Asian Common Toad. Photo by Herpetology Lab, Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi

Researchers just published the first comprehensive study on all known amphibian species of Pakistan in the open-access journal ZooKeys. In it, they report 21 species from the country, providing their identification key and photographic guide. However, as many of Pakistan’s potential amphibian habitats are difficult to access and study, especially the high-altitude northern and arid western mountains, it is highly likely that a lot of species are yet to be discovered.

Burrowing Frog (in amplexus). Photo by Herpetology Lab, Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi

In particular, the authors point out that habitats facing destruction, urbanization, pollution, unsustainable utilization and other human-caused threats need to be put on high priority, so that suitable conservation strategies can be devised. This way, amphibian populations would be better controlled with less financial, administrative, and human resources.

So far, amphibians have been excluded from all current legislative and policy decisions in the country. Likewise, they are not protected under any law. Hence, the legislation pertaining to rare and endemic species needs to be updated. Schedule III, which includes protected species, provincial and federal wildlife laws, and CITES appendices are in particular need of revision.

Common Skittering Frog. Photo by Herpetology Lab, Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi

Currently, wildlife conservation projects in Pakistan mainly focus on carnivores, ungulates and birds. Therefore, the authors of the study propose adopting an inclusive wildlife conservation approach in Pakistan. This approach would advocate the integration of poorly documented taxa, such as amphibians, in wildlife conservation and management projects. It is by highlighting the significance of their existence and the intrinsic values of all wildlife species that local ecosystems can remain healthy in the long run.

“There is also a dire need to change social attitudes towards the appreciation and significance of amphibians in our society. This could be achieved by initiating community awareness, outreach and school classrooms, and through citizen science programs,” add the researchers.

Research article:
Rais M, Ahmed W, Sajjad A, Akram A, Saeed M, Hamid HN, Abid A (2021) Amphibian fauna of Pakistan with notes on future prospects of research and conservation. ZooKeys 1062: 157-175. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1062.66913